President's drive to survive makes a splash

By Robin McKie

On a humid, airless night last March, the 42-year-old president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, opened up his palace in Male for an unusual public event.

A projection screen was hung at the back of a ballroom and brightly coloured chairs were arranged in rows. Then the audience was shown in: lawyers, Cabinet members, presidential advisers and journalists, and a sizeable chunk of Maldives society.

Nasheed, dressed in an open-neck striped shirt and dark chinos, sat in the front row.

The lights dimmed and scenes of environmental mayhem unfolded on the screen: Sydney Opera House in flames, ice sheets crashing into the seas, deserts spreading and forests burning.

Thus the people of the Maldives had their first glimpse of Franny Armstrong's documentary, The Age of Stupid, in which Pete Postlethwaite plays the last man left alive in a post-apocalyptic, climate-fried world.

It is a scrappy but passionate, a classic example of agit-prop cinema. But in the dripping night heat of Male, the film had a very different effect on its audience than it has had in the West.

Its message seemed direct and immediate, a call to arms. Nor is it hard to understand such emotion. The islands that make up the Maldives are threatened with inundation, probably by the end of the century, as ice sheets melt and sea levels rise catastrophically, thanks to global warming.

The islands are less than a couple of metres above sea level. Their highest point, at 2.3m, is the "lowest high point" for any nation on Earth.

It won't take much to inundate them. Hence the impact of the film, which left its audience desperate for reassurance from their President as he moved to a microphone stand in the centre of the ballroom.

"If man can walk on the moon, we can unite to defeat our common carbon enemy," Nasheed said. "And so today, I announce that the Maldives will become the first carbon-neutral country in the world."

The announcement was a typically slick PR exercise by Nasheed. He had been propelled into power a few weeks earlier in a national vote that had made him "the world's first democratically elected president of a 100 per cent Muslim country", as he puts it.

Yet he was already revealing himself to be an adroit and effective operator. The former investigative journalist, jailed six times by his authoritarian predecessor, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and made an Amnesty prisoner of conscience in 1991, has begun making waves - in every sense.

Apart from his pledge to turn the Maldives - a collection of atolls and islands in the Indian Ocean that have become one of the world's most luxurious tourist resorts - into a carbon-neutral state, he has revealed that he has embarked on an ambitious campaign to buy land - in India, Sri Lanka or Australia - on which he will build a New Maldives to replace the old one when it disappears under the waves.

This will be achieved by using the country's vast tourism revenue to establish "a sovereign wealth fund" to relocate its people.

"Our actions will be a template, an action kit for other nations across the world," he said.

Last week Nasheed - or "Anni" as he is known - was at it again. First, he wowed the British Conservative party annual conference in Manchester with a flawlessly delivered speech - typically presented without notes - on the importance of centre-right politics when it comes to saving the world.

Then he topped this performance by announcing that this Saturday he will chair the world's first underwater Cabinet meeting.

The aim of this plan is to raise global consciousness about the issues that must be hammered out at the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen this December, he says.

Thus Nasheed's ministers will don wetsuits and air tanks, gather in the shallow waters off the island of Girifushi, and get down to the business of governing the Maldives underwater - mainly by communicating through hand gestures. One minister, for education, has already had to pull out after diving experts announced he was not fit enough to take part.

The meeting will, as some observers have noted sardonically, bring politics in the Maldives to a new low. As one official remarked: "The paperwork should be challenging."

The idea of an underwater Cabinet meeting is certainly gimmicky but it will focus attention on a nation that stands to suffer more than any other from global warming.

"Unless something is done, my grandchildren will find these islands have completely disappeared under the waves," Nasheed said last week.

Hence those undersea meetings and those carefully organised screenings.

In 2005, Nasheed fled the Maldives to Britain. You could "always talk to a Western government about democracy", he said.

He returned to his homeland after a few months, and last year stood against Gayoom - then Asia's longest serving president - in the Maldives first democratic elections. Nasheed won, with 54 per cent of the vote.

He has since shown a striking sureness of action, though his short reign has not been without its critics.

His remarks in Manchester last week, aimed to gee along his centre-right allies, together with his plans for underwater Cabinet meetings and for moving the population to a promised land free of the threat of inundation, have led to accusations that he is a little light on political substance and too gimmicky for his own good.

Nasheed is scaring off investors, say opponents who include his predecessor, Gayoom.

"This man is so hellbent on hogging the media limelight that he is forgetting to do his job, which is to run the country," said a spokesman for the former President.

Such criticism reeks of sour grapes. Nevertheless, it is questionable how far Nasheed can go for his country.

Who will sell him the land where he can build his New Maldives? And what good will it do to make his nation carbon-neutral? Providing answers will not be easy, though in many ways they distract from the real purpose of Nasheed's plans.

We are all Maldivians, he argues. Every nation on the planet is threatened today by global warming.

The Maldives may survive more than 100 years if rises in sea level remain modest. However the oceans will continue to rise throughout next century and probably the one after it, scientists warn.

The actions of Mohamed Nasheed are aimed at stimulating action by the West in the hope his country can reap some collateral benefit when a programme for dealing effectively with climate change is hammered out. As he says: "If scientists are not able to save the Maldives, then they won't be able to save the world."


* Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed was born in Male in May 1967.

* He was educated at Majeediyya secondary school in the Maldives, then at a school in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 1981 and then, a year later, at Dauntsey's school in Wiltshire, England.

* Completed a degree in marine studies at Liverpool John Moores University.

* Returned to the Maldives in the late 1980s, set up a magazine, Sangu, and published a series of investigative reports about President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom's regime, which he accused of being corrupt and guilty of a string of human rights abuses. Police raided the magazine's offices and arrested Nasheed. The 23-year-old spent several months in solitary confinement, accused of trying to overthrow the Government.

* Nasheed says that over 10 years, he was arrested 16 times and spent a total of six years in jail. Sadly, he says, he missed the births of his two daughters: "It was a tough reminder of a fundamental truth ... that the freedom of the individual should not be destroyed at the whim of an over-mighty state."


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